Technicalities

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I didn't know Walter Kielbowicz.

I know a few things about him, for which I have the internet to thank. He was born in 1917 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was an MP during World War II. He was married for 60 years and fathered two daughters. He worked as a lab technician in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and retired in 1979. He liked to fish, and was a woodworker in his spare time. Walter died in 2007 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a couple of months before his 90th birthday.

But I know something else about him as well, something that his obituary in the Amherst Bulletin did not mention. When he was a teenager, he loved airplanes.

I know this because I have the scrapbook he kept from 1931 to 1937. My daughter-in-law found it at a flea market in New Milford, Connecticut, and got it for me. She knew that I would enjoy the glimpse it provides of a time, a lifetime ago, when aviation was still the stuff of a young man's dreams.

The scrapbook is a two-ring binder, half-disintegrated now. Its pages are sheets of blue-lined school paper with adhesive reinforcements on the holes. On its cover are pasted several pictures; top center is the Laird "Super Solution," a tiny, clean biplane with a 500 hp Pratt & Whitney engine. In it, a young and handsome Jimmy Doolittle won the 1931 Bendix trophy race from Burbank to Cleveland. After making the almost-1,800 nm flight in slightly over nine hours, Doolittle continued to Newark in another two hours, setting a new transcontinental speed record and averaging, with three fueling stops, nearly 190 knots for the entire trip.

Also on the cover are another then-well-known pilot, Lowell Bayles, and his Gee Bee Model Z, a prodigy of disproportion with its 500-horsepower engine, 23-foot wingspan, and vestigial vertical tail. Bayles won several speed contests at Cleveland in 1931, but he would lose his life a few months afterwards when the airplane, refitted with an 800 hp engine, fluttered and disintegrated at over 300 mph.

Walter was understandably enamored of the Gee Bee, which was an extraordinary design, consisting essentially of an 800 hp radial engine with a small fairing behind it. The pilot sat with his head in what should have been the dorsal fin. In 1932 it set a somewhat anticlimactic landplane speed record of 296 mph at a time when the fastest airplanes were seaplanes, perched on enormous floats, that had already surpassed 400 mph. The scrapbook is full of pictures of various Gee Bee models and of their pilots, whom they killed at a rate of approximately one per model. Luckily, Doolittle was spared. Walter traced a Gee Bee and filled the drawing in with colored pencils; then, apparently not content with his work, he pasted over it some clippings from the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican: TWO KILLED AS ARMY PLANE CRASHES AT FIELD.

"The Latest Aerial Stunts," proclaims a headline, in an ornate serif font, on a photo of a Boeing F4B-1 in inverted flight over Washington; the Washington Monument and the Mall are visible in the background, together with large tracts of empty land that are crowded with buildings today. "Safe Altitude Is an Essential in Stunting," warns the caption, with lots of capitalized words for emphasis. It seemed natural then to perform acrobatics over the Capitol -- innocent times!

Walter, like his era, was fond of long-distance flights. Several pictures, which from the paper stock and the typeface I guessed must have come from National Geographic, record the adventures of Charles Healy Day and his wife, Gladys, who flew a side-by-side homebuilt two-seat biplane, designed and built by Day, around the world in seven months in 1931, making the ocean crossings by steamer. The landing field at Damascus was under French control, we learn, and it provided excellent information regarding "air conditions" for the flight to Baghdad. (The story was, indeed, from the June 1932 issue of National Geographic; I later found a summary of the narrative, which is extraordinarily interesting, at chingchic.com/chic/news/10/55/the-honeymoon-couple.)

Disastrous crashes were also of interest to Walter, although, because many airplanes had low stalling speeds, pilots and passengers often survived wrecks that reduced their airplanes to rubble. "Object of wide search," a typical caption reads, "Harold Neff, airmail pilot, was found with a broken leg and arm beside the wreckage of his plane in swamp near Jackson, Mich." The wreckage is unrecognizable as an airplane, or even parts of one.

Crashes involving Wiley Post get considerable attention, as does the disaster of the Hindenburg; Howard Hughes sets another transcontinental speed record; the insufferable Roscoe Turner flashes his Clark Gable grin. Charles Lindbergh, on the other hand, makes only a cameo appearance. As the pages turn and the years pass, we see the airplanes gain in size and sleekness; near the end is "the new Douglas sleeping-car airplane," a DC-1 in American Airlines livery. "This huge plane," the caption gasps, "can accommodate 24 seated passengers and has berths for 16."

Journalistic accounts of the future are usually laughable in retrospect, but I was startled to find an artist's drawing of an open-cockpit biplane making its way through what appeared to be a blizzard as the pilot, in an enlarged detail, studies a rectangular screen labeled "Weather chart by television." Here was a glass cockpit and Nexrad, in 1932. It is remarkable, however, that the visionary who correctly identified these developments of the distant future did not think of a much less exotic one -- some method, such as a cockpit canopy, of keeping the snow out.

Also quite interesting, if in a more obscurely technical way, is a dimensioned drawing of a very small tandem-wing model glider, the "Jersey Darning Needle," designed by Theodore Bellak, a prominent glider pilot of the time. What is remarkable about this little toy is the aerodynamic sophistication it displays. The dihedral of the front wing is greater than that of the rear, I suppose to prevent vortex interference, and the front wing is the more heavily loaded, a requirement for stability of which many later designers of canard airplanes seem to have been unaware.

Like many such scrapbooks, this one has, folded at the back, a mass of clippings, brochures and whatnot that Walter didn't get around to pasting onto his lined loose-leaf pages. And in an envelope are a few personal effects: several black and white negatives -- photographs of the young man himself and of model planes he built -- a receipt for an application for a driver's license, and a "Resident Citizen's Trapping License" (fee $5.25, paid) recording his age as 20, his height as 6 feet, his weight as 144 pounds, and his color, quaintly, as "W."

I had a scrapbook once, when I was a little younger than Walter. I too cut out pictures of airplanes, pasted them on pages -- heavy card stock, in my case -- and inserted them in a binder. I still remember some of them -- a burst of rockets exploding from a wingtip pod on an F-94, a Vought F7U Cutlass curving over a blue ocean. There were Thunderjets and Thunderchiefs, Cougars and Sabres, straight-winged North American bombers with bulky underslung jets, and the delicate, birdlike B-47 -- the whole panoply of Korean War-era hardware, all of it inexpressibly seductive to my 10-year-old's eyes. What is it in a boy that can adore a wing, idolize an air intake? Is it sexuality, translated into a socially acceptable form? If you've felt it you know -- the strange electricity immanent in sleek, fast-moving things.

Did Walter dream that some day he would lower himself into one of those open cockpits, hear a big radial chuff into life, survey his world from above the clouds? Did he think a zigzag line across continents and oceans might one day track a journey of his? I think he did -- because I did, and because, when I hold his scrapbook, I feel as though this distant stranger is known to me, is my brother, is, momentarily, myself.

In the end, he did not. I located one of his daughters -- via the internet again. She seemed only politely interested in the fact that her dad's old scrapbook had found its way across a continent to me. She said that Walter Kielbowicz had never, in his adult life, expressed any special interest in aviation.